Sunday, November 8, 2015

Still Listening, Still Learning

On October 23, illustrator Sophie Blackall’s blog post on the depiction of slavery in A Fine Dessert (which Blackall illustrated and for which Emily Jenkins wrote the text) set off a children's literature firestorm. Two weeks later, we’re still talking about it. This has been a charged topic and an exhausting one for many. Some readers may be ready to put this whole thing behind them, but many others are just starting to scratch the surface, and still more are trying to make sense of the whole situation.

This is more than just people arguing about a single picture book. This conversation is just one piece of a bigger discussion that must be ongoing, around issues that people of color and First/Native Nations have been raising for decades. The following (based on a very smart person's Facebook comment) is something that really resonates with me and, I think, sums the situation up beautifully:

What's hard for white people, I think, is realizing that we can do things that are racist and sexist. Few mean to, and the challenge is in listening and learning and knowing that is the best you can do. Getting it right all the time is impossible. But being open and humble is possible, even if it is very often uncomfortable or even painful. I keep reminding myself that facing that pain is less than what others have endured. It is the absolute least we can do. And it makes art more honest about humanity, to reflect this instead of the white and male dominated cultural models we are so often shown.

Here are some links to parts of the conversation. This is just a sampling. Read them, watch them, think about them. Let's listen to and learn from them, and from each other.


Mon Trice Author of Changing Seasons said...

I checked the book out of our local library to read it for myself. I have to say I didn't find it offensive. I didn't take the character of the slave woman and child to be flat. I saw her as a woman and mother FIRST, sharing a stolen tender moment with her daughter. This book would need to be read with a parent to talk about the depths and horror of slavery but a picture book for 4-8 year olds, where these characters are not the main character is hardly the place for it. I appreciate the acknowledgement at the end for wanting to acknowledge slavery. I'm just wondering how else could it have been portrayed. If not smiling at her daughter the risk is that slaves are uncaring toward their children, incapable of feeling. Where slaves monolithic of emotion? On the flip side, I could see how some would be offended as there are too many narratives of smiling slaves and that period of history being white washed. However, I don't find that this book fits that bill. It worked for me. My hope is that Emily Jenkins does not get discouraged by this controversy and continues to write books with diverse characters.

Sam Bloom said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Mon Trice. It's obvious that Emily Jenkins has been listening to so much of the discussion about the book. I look forward to seeing what she has in store for us in the future. (Same with Sophie Blackall.)

Jean Mendoza said...

This is kind of a minor point in the discussion, but it's starting to trouble me, and it's actually relevant to many contentious children's lit conversations.
The words "offended and "offensive" have been misused a lot when characterizing critiques of this book and many others, as well. I think it would be helpful to employ more nuanced vocabulary as we present our reactions to others' reactions to such books. After all, "offended" persons can be dismissed as responding at a purely personal, emotional level, when we're all supposed to be *thinking* *rationally* about these things?
And pointing out problems or potential issues in a book is not necessarily a matter of "taking offense." Words and images can make impressions that are problematic, false, biased, etc., without being patently offensive. One may be troubled, annoyed, disgusted, frustrated, or many other things without being "offended." That said, sometimes offense may be intended, and understood as such. But I advocate that we refrain from saying/implying that any objection is a case of "taking offense".

Enslavement was and is immoral, unethical, oppressive, destructive to individuals, to families, and to the common good. Period. Enslaved people, we know, were and are fully human with all the complex range of cognitive and emotional stuff that people do and feel.
Maybe a challenge for any book that involves slavery is to assert or confirm that it is evil while presenting the enslaved people as complex human beings. In fact, I believe that people (authors and illustrators) who take it upon themselves to communicate with children about "the way things were" are responsible for helping their readers move toward understanding those aspects of enslavement. This point of view -- that creation of a children's book is a social act that entails some moral/ethical responsibilities -- hasn't met with universal approval when I've expressed it elsewhere, but there it is.

It seems to me that many critics of A Fine Dessert are saying that it does not succeed in depicting what children can and need to understand about slavery. (I agree, BTW.) The range of emotional and cognitive content in their critiques seems grounded in concern about historical accuracy, our society's ongoing recovery from a dreadful institution (if that's possible), and the well-being of children, both contemporary and future. Most of those critics aren't saying they are offended, and it's important to acknowledge that even if they are using that word, their critiques are not knee-jerk personal-level offendedness, as has been implied by some influential commenters elsewhere, but thoughtful, nuanced, complex, and valuable. Jean Mendoza

Christine said...

Nuanced discussion - even personal opinions - should be the goal. Censorship and cyberbullying is not, nor has it ever been, a good thing and that's the current trend moving forward in childlit which is, for me, disturbing.

Anonymous said...

Where do you see censorship at work here?


Unknown said...

I should clarify. As an African American woman, mother and author my view is both personal and professional. I did not feel the need to separate the layers of my views. I too am "fully human with all the complex range of cognitive and emotional stuff that people do and feel".

Again, I did not find offense. However I can see how it's problematic. As an author, when my target is a group of 4-8 year olds, there are certain liberties I will not take. How young is too young? How do you convey the magnitude of the horrors of slavery without leaving them horrified, shut down and paralyzed? In the same vein, wanting to educate and spark conversation with parent and early reader. So how far do you go? Do you show them sold, whipped, raped, castrated, branded like cattle by their overseers and masters? That was "how things were". In my humble opinion, I think it best for the parent to lay the groundwork for such a painful time in our history. There are solemn faces with downcast eyes illustrated while "waiting supper - where the master and his family ate..." There are no smiles while they are serving. With the added Note from the Author, explaining this section of the book, this worked FOR ME. I can certainly see exploring the evils of slavery in a chapter book, there is more space to explore it. However, in none of the critiques I have read to date does anyone explain exactly HOW they would portray this differently in a picture book.

However uncomfortable, this is important discussion.

Sam Bloom said...

Thanks again to everyone for continuing the discussion, everyone. I added another link to the post above from Edi Campbell; don't miss that one.

Nanette said...

Mon Trice -

"However, in none of the critiques I have read to date does anyone explain exactly HOW they would portray this differently in a picture book."

In *this* picture book, I don't think it could have been done. I keep reading things like "It's not a book about slavery! It's about dessert!" as if that were something profound or made even a little bit of sense. It does not--UNLESS people are willing to take that to its conclusion and point out that it is not a book about slavery, it's a book, from first to last, about how white families made a particular dessert over the centuries. And realize, in that context, that the 1810 panels are not an *inclusive* thing--at no point are Black children the participants or audience or learners for that section. They are the lesson.

Or maybe just... I don't know.

I was reading someone's lesson plan for reading and teaching this book (written before all the controversy) and it included talk about the dessert, the clothing, the implements and how various things changed over the centuries--but not a word about the focus of the 1810 section. Which means that, following that plan, all children (Black children in particular) would have been left with just the images of Blacks as the servant/slave class in service to white families. Something far too many people *still* think is the natural order of things.

Could that same mother and child have been *included* in the story? Yes, but the focus of the book would have had to change from how white families made this dessert over the centuries to just how families made the dessert. They could have still been enslaved (though there were any number of free Black families around at that time) but the focus could have been on them, complete in themselves--that way the Black children could have been participants and audience members, as well as a lesson.

Anyway, I would not touch slavery in a picture book without truth and context--for the benefit of all children (and adults.) If there is one thing America has been lying to itself and each other about for centuries, it's slavery. Also, I would center Black children as the audience--children of other colors/cultures can still learn even if white sensibilities are not centered.

Anyway, it can be done right, with both truth and age-sensitivity. The two books I am in love with at this moment that do just that are The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (written by white author Chris Barton with illustrations by Don Tate, a Black illustrator.) It was reviewed here at this site .

The other is Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, written and illustrated by Don Tate -

I'm sure there are more, but I came across all three books (Dessert and these two) at approx the same time and the contrast was startling. There are enslaved persons smiling in these two books as well, but within a much different context. And context does matter.

Christine said...

Hi Mon. I'm African American too and agree with you completely. I was distressed to see the attacks on the author - even by people with no "stake" in the game. I met the illustrator at a conference recently and although she was getting support from a number of professionals (book sold out) she was obviously shaken from all the hate thrown at her. So i hugged her, because I'd been where she is and needed it as much as she seemed to. And it was cleansing.

I think the thing that bothers me more than most about the whole diversity movement is that so many people are talking at the issue in social media, in some cases not as polite discourse but more as an angry mob using polite languagee to mask the bullets. Rather than getting together for constructive dialogue they hide behind other people's opinions. I wasn't that happy with the spread but good grief its subjective and part of Free Speech. So I told the illustrator and one of the Randomhouse reps how it might have been nuanced to better avoid the storm from my perspective (simple change to the spread). It was a productive and positive conversation.

Unknown said...

Nanette, Thank you for your insight. I will check out the other books you mentioned and read those reviews. I appreciate all the discussion and various viewpoints.

Larry said...


"In *this* picture book, I don't think it could have been done."

Are you saying that a book about families enjoying this particular dessert over the centuries wasn't worth writing, with or without the 1810 section?

I've read the other books you link to and I agree they're both excellent, but I don't think the comparison with A Fine Dessert is a good one for just the reason you mention: they put black lives and experiences at the center of the book. So I think you kind of side-stepped the question: in a 32-page picture book with a large historical sweep, HOW would you portray the lives of slaves? Is it even worth trying? If not, you're left with "a book -- from first to last -- about how white families made a particular dessert over the centuries." I suppose that would have bore more resemblance to a majority of the picture books out there, but is that really preferable?

Christine said...


Nanette said...

Hi Larry, to answer your last question first--yes. In my opinion, far more preferable. Either do it right or don't do it all with a subject as volatile and painful and with so many present-day repercussions as slavery.

In answer to "HOW", in a 32 page picture book I would portray the lives of those enslaved... well, it would depend on the picture book and topic, no? In this particular book I think the better question is why portray them at all? They are only there to show how a white South Carolina family might have prepared this particular dessert in 1810--they are not there to tell their own story, but the story of the family who holds them in captivity. Not all white Southern families kept people enslaved, so that could have gone in a different direction. If that section just had to be in there, I would have instead told their story, that of the enslaved mom, daughter and son (where's Dad, if we're imagining intact families, by the way?)--and eliminated, for one, the dinner scene (which is pretty horrifying) and instead had them maybe simply hiding in the kitchen with a glimpse through the door at the white family (if they had to be included.)

As for whether the book itself about the dessert was worth writing--sure! It's a lovely book, most of it, with an easy little recipe that even the most kitchen-phobic parents and children can create together. I've seen people say they did just that, in fact. Though--how many Black parents and children do you think will be encouraged, by this book, to recreate the recipe? Some will, sure--we are not a monolith. Others won't touch it for anything.

The other two books I mentioned are not so much different because they put Black lives front and center... but because they are written with Black children/adults in mind. Believe me, as an almost 60 year old Black woman, I've read any number of books (from the time I was a child to present-day) who put Black lives front and center--but they are not written with Black children/adults in mind as part of the audience. There is a difference. And, in my view, A Fine Dessert, however unintentionally, does not recognize that difference.

Debbie Reese said...

Nanette--I've read and re-read what you've said here and elsewhere and want to pause in my reading to thank you.

Larry said...

Nanette, thanks from me too, for your whole response but especially the last paragraph. It's an important difference, and one I obviously don't consider enough. Thanks again.

Christine said...

Nanette - that's a great, and nuanced distinction. And it points to why publishers should be shaking the bushes and bringing back all of the experienced editors and art directors of color they've let go over the years. That no one in the pipeline was able to catch that this spread could have been done - but handled in a completely different way that still advanced the author and illustrators intent (diversity at the end). The problem, according to many of my colleagues, and I know from personal experience, is that we have a lot of people trying to do the right thing that don't really understand the problem.

We Need Diverse books is trying to fix the problem with internships and new talent. But publishing needs to go and get the people who are ready now. And there are quite a few. The brutal layoffs over the years often meant minority talent was let go - and those who remained learned not to wade into this issue for fear of being labeled as the "minority" editor.

We can't keep having children's books edited by people who have little experience with the growing diverse children in the US. This is not the fault of the content creators as much as it is a failure of the entire editorial process.

Nanette said...

Well, shucks, thanks to you guys, too, Debbie and Larry. I've felt a need to talk all this out so thanks for the space and conversation to do so :)

(hope this posts... my internet is having fits today)

Nanette said...

Christine, thanks -- and though I really can't speak much on this issue (not being in the industry) what you are saying does make sense and sort of brings to mind this article Debbie Reese highlighted a few days ago, by Walter Dean Myers ( ).

Lots was lost, for whatever reason--it's time that things changed (yet again.)

Tricia Springstubb said...

After following these discussions as closely as I'm able, I'm left wondering whether some things are just impossible to depict for very young children. I'm not sure that's a bad thing; soon enough, they will be grappling with life's many injustices and cruelties, hopefully with the help of compassionate, clear-eyed books.